Los Campesinos! formed in Cardiff, Wales, a decade ago, but none of its seven members is actually Welsh.
Though their sound is distinctly of the UK, it’s shot through with an aggressive jolt of American indie rock. Each member adopted the surname of Campesino (Spanish for “farmer”), and this family is on the run through North America in support of their sixth and latest album, Sick Scenes, instigating conversations -- and maybe some arguments -- along the way.
City Pages caught up with singer/lyricist Gareth Campesino a few weeks back about the band’s musical growth, whether they still like America, and the virtues of keeping your mouth shut while applying for a visa.
City Pages: My first question has to be why “Campesinos”?
Gareth Campesino: Well, first off, it seems like a foolish decision now, as we are applying for visas to work in your country, with your president being who he is, one of his people will see this band has a “Mexican” name and just deny the visas just based on that. Besides that, I can’t really take the blame. The name had been decided on before there were any songs, before I was a member. When Neil [the group’s guitarist] formed the band, I joined two weeks later. I think if we are being perfectly honest, it was due to him being a big fan of the Decemberists at the time, and sort of buying into that imagery and iconography that they used. Los Campesinos! is a stupid name, and what makes it further stupid is the inclusion of the exclamation mark which I have had a tumultuous relationship over the last decade. I wish there was some great significance to it, but it is just the moniker we quite randomly came upon.
CP: When I hear Spanish words in my rock and roll, I think of the Clash instantly. Are there any Clash-like politics to the band?
GC: I think the seven of us share left-wing politics. We all consider ourselves somewhere on the scale of socialism, some more than others. I think being a British band, you can’t not be aware of the Clash, obviously, and certainly as a teenager -- London Calling in particular, that was a band that you had to pay attention to. Further than that, though, any shared politics or worldview isn’t really due to a love of that band.
CP: Last question about the punk-rock pillars, but whenever bands adopt the same surname, I think of the Ramones.
GC: It’s always been a good sense of comradery, and I like gigs that feel very inclusive. We try to remove any sort of hierarchy between band and fan, and that common surname adds to that familial atmosphere.
CP: Would you like to chart the growth of the band from the start to Sick Scenes in five sentences or less?
GC: I’ll give it a good go. From our first record, Hold On Now, Youngster, we were a self-styled, twee, indie rock technicolor extravaganza which I quickly became embarrassed of, and became slightly more introverted in my personality, but more “emo” in my songwriting. That takes us through our next few records, and throughout the course we’ve refined and honed. I think it is quite interesting if you listen to them chronologically, you can hear how we have improved as musicians. How many sentences was that?
CP: I wasn’t actually counting. I love Sick Scenes. Is there something different about it that sets it apart from the previous ones?
GC: I think this record is the first one in a long time that we approached in a very eyes-wide-open way. We used to record an album every year, but this is the first record we have released in three years, and as a result were really excited to get our ideas onto the record, and get out there and play them. There is that sense of energy and excitement in this record that wasn’t really missing in previous records, but is more emphasized this time. Lyrically, it’s a bit more plain-spoken, less flowery, and more direct.
CP: I think that Sick Scenes has a really great combination of what I would call “American” influences mixed in with the English sensibilities. “5 Flucloxacillin” is a great example.
GC: I think that makes sense. One of the most difficult questions that can be asked is who are you listening to, because by now I just think that six albums in I’m just not influenced by anyone else. I have this musical psyche, obviously, but I am not aware of what is influencing me. I’m just writing. What you say about those typically “American” and “British” things, when we formed the bands we really loved were Pavement, Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Dinosaur Jr. All that 90s college rock. We still like that, don’t get me wrong, but these days I’m listening to 80s UK bands like Prefab Sprout, Aztec Camera, stuff like that. By now we definitely have found a good balance.
CP: The very beginning of the album sounds like the listener is maybe surfacing from underwater, or removing hands from over the ears as the music builds.
GC: It reminds me of hearing music from next door, or walking into a gig through the corridors closer and closer to the stage.
CP: Right, right. Exactly. I think my favorite song on the album is “Sad Suppers.” I have a question, though. What is a “saudaddy”?
GC: "Saudade" is a Portuguese word that isn’t directly translatable into English but it means a great sense of sadness and longing. It is a pun on that word, and “daddy,” suggesting that I am the daddy of that sentiment and feeling. I feel that is a very Campesino! lyric because it is needlessly complicated. I hope that explanation increases your enjoyment of that song.
CP: It really does. The album title makes a whole lot of sense, and it is even pretty literal a lot of the time. I have to ask, though, what has happened to that poor woman on the album cover?
GC: Rob from the band does all the artwork, and he is an exceptional talent. We talked a lot about the cover. We knew what we meant, but it looked like the girl had been attacked or assaulted. It’s meant to be this poor girl has just had enough, finds herself in the supermarket, and just thrown herself down on the floor to be comfortable for a moment, and her milk has gone down with her. I think it does a good job of representing that sense of hopelessness and malaise. If you get to see a physical copy of the LP, it will make more sense.
CP: We’ve touched on politics, but how do you feel about America? Do you like us?
GC: I’m less excited about going there than when the tour was booked. I am aware of the great unrest. I feel weird about it, given some of the events that are taking place that are barbaric and depressing. People are excited to see us, though, and I am looking forward to meeting more like-minded people. It’s difficult at the moment because we are generally quite outspoken about issues, but we are in the awkward situation that we have to remain silent about Trump because we are in the visa application process. They will Google you. They will check out your social media, and the fact that we have a Spanish name, and our drummer is of Iranian heritage. I am trying to keep my mouth shut, lest we fuck it up.
CP: This interview won’t be online until well after you have your visas are acquired.
GC: Yeah, the Minneapolis show is like 10 days into the tour, so we should be good.
CP: 2016 was a pretty bloodthirsty year in terms of artists being taken from us. Did any one’s passing affect particularly affect you?
GC: I’m quite a cold-blooded person in this. I take it all in stride, because people like Bowie or Prince, while doubtless that they are incredible musicians, but I wasn’t hugely obsessed. One that hit me the most was George Michael because he was an absolutely fantastic pop artist, and he always struck me as being a great person. After his death, it was shown what a benevolent person he was. I am very aware that we are entering an age that this is forever. Literally every day, people that we know are going to be dying. This era of celebrity started in, what, the 60s? The teenagers of the 60s are entering the final stages of their lives over the next ten years. I try to be reasonably level-headed about it.
Where: Triple Rock Social Club
When: 7:30pm Friday, March 3
Tickets: $15; more info here